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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: prejudice

Overcoming prejudice is child's play; we adults can do it, too

Stephen H. Provost

I’m going to tell you a short personal story, one that my parents told me because I was too young to remember it – even though I was one of the central characters. Both my parents are gone now, and I wanted to preserve this story, not because it says anything about me, but because it says something about how we learn to hate and fear those who are different ... or not, if we've got good role models. 

When I was 3 years old, my father got a one-year job as a visiting professor of American politics in Sydney, Australia. On our way there, we stopped at a South Pacific island and were greeted by a bellhop at the hotel. He was a tall, bearded man with dark skin and a friendly smile. He was probably in his twenties or thirties.

I know this because I’ve seen a picture of him. In the photo, which is probably stored away in the attic somewhere, I'm standing next to the man, holding his hand. Dad enjoyed taking photos (a favored pastime he handed down to me), and he liked to show this one as part of his living room slide shows long before the era of PowerPoint and YouTube.

Anyway, the story, as my dad told it, went something like this:

We were checking into this hotel, and the aforementioned gentlemen asked to help us with our bags. I stared up at him and pointed, then turned to my parents and said, “He’s different.”

Mom and Dad were aghast. They thought sure I’d noticed the man’s dark skin and had made the kind of rude remark that children who “don’t know any better” tend to make.

But the next words out of my mouth immediately put everyone at ease: “He’s got hair on his face.”

What if I had remarked about the color of his skin? Is there really anything wrong with acknowledging our differences? I don’t think so … as long as we also acknowledge our common humanity.

Children who “don’t know any better” are too often taught to “know worse” by adults who use differences as an excuse to demean people who aren’t like them.

I’m thankful my parents weren’t like that.

A funny postscript to this story: My dad, the following year, grew a beard of his own. I later followed suit, not to be like dad, but the opposite – to be different. At 17, most other guys in my high school didn’t have one, and I liked the idea of having my own identity.

Identity is important. So is respect. I may not have known that yet when I was 3 years old, but my parents taught me that over the years.

We can celebrate our differences and our commonality at the same time. It isn't hard. A child can do it.

Author's note: Dad’s birthday is coming up this month, and it will be the first year I won’t be able to celebrate it with him. You’re still making a difference, Dad, even if you’re no longer here to see it.

The price of violence — and our only alternative

Stephen H. Provost

Guns don’t solve problems. People do. Or we can when we look past our anger, our fear, our prejudice.

Fists don’t solve problems, either. Neither do knives, threats or bullying. This should all seem so very obvious, but we’re losing track of the obvious in a maze of blame and accusation that we’ll never escape if we don’t reverse course soon.

We want easy solutions that aren’t solutions at all. Most often, they only make the problems worse.

Afraid of someone? Shoot him. Easy. Problem eliminated. Right? Except now, all of that person’s friends view you as the problem and probably want to eliminate you. They have guns, too. They can get those easily enough. But more importantly, they have something you gave them: a reason to hate you.

To solve a problem, we must first understand it. But that’s too much work; we want the easy way out. Just exterminate it – or the people we believe caused it – and the repercussions be damned. Understanding is hard because it requires that we educate ourselves, that we try to see things from other people’s perspective even though we may not have experienced their pain, their challenges, their hardships.

They may even tell us, “You can’t understand. You haven’t been what we’ve been through.” But that doesn’t excuse us from trying. At best, we’ll surprise them. At worst, we’ll learn something that will increase our level of knowledge – and more knowledge is always better than less. We won’t be able to solve the problem right away, but we’ll be closer.

If we pull the trigger or dismiss another person’s pain, we’ll be further away. We’ll be promoting the opposite of knowledge, which is ignorance, because those we’ve silenced will never be able to help us understand. Those whose pain we’ve dismissed feel as though they haven’t been heard. And they’ll not only stop trying to help us understand, they’ll stop trying to understand us. And then where will we be? On opposite ends of an armed standoff, trying to blow each other’s brains out rather than using those brains as the best weapons we have against the fear and hurt that divide us.

The alternative

There is another way, if we have the courage and the patience to pursue it.

It’s hard.

When we try to understand, things get complicated, and we don’t like complicated. It’s frustrating dealing with problems you can’t solve right away, with people who don’t trust you, with bureaucracies, playing fields that are anything but level and people who are hell-bent on protecting – and exploiting – their advantages. There’s prejudice and there’s bitterness. But none of that goes away by pulling a trigger or responding with some shallow platitude and going on our merry way.

People who are hurting are hurting for a reason. We can try to shield our tender sensibilities from the hurt by placing a bandage over our own eyes, but that doesn’t make the hurt go away. It only sends a message to those who have been hurt that we don’t care.

The unheard scream, “We matter!” not because they believe others matter less, but because they feel their pain is being ignored or dismissed as unimportant.

Yes, everyone matters. But when you’re hurting and it seems like no one cares, you don’t feel like you do. Then you have two choices. You can surrender to the judgment of others and believe that you really are unimportant. Or you can reject that and say, “I do matter.” And you can take that self-worth and use it as motivation to speak a little louder, try a little harder to be heard. Until someone starts to listen, tries to understand and maybe even helps you change things for the better. Or at least stops hurting you. At least that.

Those who haven’t been heard and those who don’t want to hear have this in common: They lash out. The only way to stop this is to start hearing one another. Hearing leads to understanding, which, in time, can lead to trust.

Building trust is, by its nature, a long and tortuous process that can, tragically, be upended by the frustration and impatience that leads us to pull triggers, call each other names and stop listening. When we do, we put everything right back at square one. Because that’s the reality of this: Not only does the “quick fix” never fix anything, it destroys the entire process of seeking understanding and, ultimately, of building trust.

And it destroys lives along the way.

We have to stop shooting people. But more than that, we must stop thinking we can eliminate problems we don’t understand by invoking brute force or wishing them away. By calling names or building walls. The only way to achieve our goals is by building understanding that leads, ultimately, to trust. That’s hard work; there will be miscommunication and hurt feelings along the way. But obstacles and detours shouldn’t deter us from keeping to the path.

There are no shortcuts.